is the author of seventeen books – short stories, novels, memoir, history and biography. He is a winner of the Irish Times Fiction Award; the C Day Lewis Award; the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award and his most recent novel, The Space Between Us, was short-listed for the Kerry Book of the Year Award. His books have been translated into several languages. He is also a winner of a Jacob’s Radio Award for his documentary work with the poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen. He teaches in NUI Maynooth.
I am very happy to be able to let my readers know of a wonderful very wise book by John MacKenna, Things You Should Know, which is a memoir that centers on what it means to be a father and a son. During Irish short story month, I asked 80 writers, taking my lead from Declan Kiberd, if the theme of the weak or missing father was a dominating one in modern Irish literature (Kiberd claims it is). The answers ranged from yes for sure this is right, to it is one of the themes to those who said this might have been true once but Irish writers have moved on from this theme to broader social issues. A father can be missing without being weak. He can be making huge sacrifices to work offshore or for that matter he might have died when his children were still young. MacKenna shows us a strong, wise, self-aware man missing from his children's lives because of the breakup of his marriage to their mother. No one seems at fault, no one is a monster, the couple just drifted apart.
One of the thing that makes this book so special is we see the man trying to remain a force in his children' lives and we also see flash backs to his relationship with his own father. One of the stereotypes or maybe a simple truth found in Irish literature is the working out of the consequences of the emotional reticence of the culture and MacKenna deals with this in a very subtle fashion.
The story is very set in place in county Kildare, Ireland. MacKenna clearly has a deep love for Kildare and it shows in the many small details. I thought his remarks about the "corner men" were really illuminating and they helped me understand more about Irish culture.
The prose is beautiful, at times lyrical. I am very glad I read this book. If you are a father, I have three daughters, it will make you reflect on how you conduct yourself.
I will soon be reading and posting on some of the short stories in his collection, The River Field.